Climate and land use changes are transforming landscapes and indigenous ecosystems, in part by altering taxonomic composition, with presumably functional repercussions. This symposium explores how changes in taxonomic composition result in changes in ecosystem function, and in the process seeks to address several questions that span the theory-to practice continuum: i.e., how are ecosystems built, how closely correlated are species composition to ecosystem function, and how likely are environmental services to change as a result of changes in species composition. These are all valid questions for, in the end, they deal with both our comprehension of our natural world and our probability of subsistence. On the other hand, they have no relevance in the worlds of policy and practice. Regardless of their name, for there have been several before the “Novel Ecosystem” concept took hold in the scientific literature, the fact remains that we are losing species, and that restoring ecosystems remains a challenge regardless of the academic discussions. In this talk, I explore the extent to which the concept of novel communities and novel ecosystems is a useful framework that informs policy makers and restoration practitioners of neotropical countries.
In the humid tropics, where each forest successional stage includes several dozen species, restoration practitioners often rely on a handful (1-5) species to break successional stressors, and a few (5-15) to kick start or catalyze secondary succession. The composition of the final community is uncertain because the ensuing recolonization is highly dependent on initial conditions and strongly context dependent. The resulting ecosystem’s future resiliency and functionality are an even bigger unknown. How to predict, then, what would be the resulting levels of different ecosystem functions several decades later? Given this level of uncertainty in the practice, it is even harder to incorporate the issue of novelty in the policy arena. Policy makers are still trying to comprehend the concept of restoration, a process that exceeds by an order of magnitude any government cycle, and that requires not only addressing the biological complexity of a site but the social as well. Current restoration policy is driven by the need to recover some basic ecosystem services, mainly water and soil productivity. Thus, while the discussion on how many species it takes to turn a historic ecosystem into a novel one is intellectually appealing, in the end it is still irrelevant to practitioners and policy makers.